A recent poll by the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist reveals that most Americans support federal legislation requiring background checks (83%) and licenses (72%) to purchase guns and to ban both the purchase of high-capacity ammunition magazines (61%) and semi-automatic assault rifles (57%). Representative Andy Barr recently wrote in the Herald Leader that Republicans are being “falsely accused” of failing to curb gun violence in the U.S., citing some actual or proposed legislation “aimed at preventing violence.” Only one of his items (a ban on “bump stocks’) addresses gun restrictions and none focus on the actions favored overwhelmingly by both Democratic and Republican voters in these polls.
So why are many politicians ignoring the wishes of their constituents? Representative Barr tells us Republicans want to keep guns out of the hands of those who “should not have them in the first place,” and that the “plain language of the Second Amendment” guarantees that law-abiding citizens should have access to guns. But the Herald Leader’s Linda Blackford cites a Stanford University study showing that the 1994-2004 ban on assault weapons led to fewer “gun massacres” and to a startlingly large increase in mass shootings after the ban expired. The ban was never successfully challenged in court. Still, some politicians (almost all of whom somehow seem to be Republicans) defend the right to own a gun with the capacity to kill or maim multiple dozens of innocent people, including children, in a short minute or two. They are supporting gun-rights advocates’ claims that the Second Amendment grants an unconditional right to buy any kind of gun. Restrictions would be an assault on their liberty and freedom.
Opponents of gun-ownership constraints focus on what political scientists call “negative freedom,” which suggests government restrictions on behavior are unwarranted. Seldom does the gun control debate take account of “positive freedom,” which strives to offer a rich menu of options to its beneficiaries. Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe had unlimited negative freedom, but virtually no positive freedom, since there was nothing to do but enjoy the weather and search for coconuts. Both types of freedom are valuable, but there are trade-offs between them. Governments often place constraints on behavior (restrict negative liberty) to enhance the positive freedom of others. For example, if I own a lakefront property or a houseboat, I can legally prevent you from camping in my front yard or walking uninvited onto my houseboat. With the government’s consent and its substantial enforcement capabilities, I can constrain the rights of thousands of my fellow Kentuckians (restrict their negative freedom) to enhance my capacity to enjoy my own property (positive freedom).
All of us face uncountable numbers of restrictions, constraints, and regulations designed to protect what are called “property rights.” Without them, theft, anarchy, and chaos would corrupt our way of life. The Declaration of Independence stated boldly that Americans have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Can there be a more important “property right” than the right to your own life? When an innocent school child is shot dead in the classroom or a young mother is killed in a Walmart because assault-weapon owners are “exercising their Second-Amendment rights,” negative freedom has won an unjustified and immoral victory over positive freedom. A lifetime of possibilities is instantaneously destroyed to “protect” what amounts to a single person’s whim. To argue that this is something the Founding Fathers would have found an acceptable trade-off is the essence of a delusion. Politicians need to stop hiding behind the “negative freedoms” supposedly supported by the Second Amendment, stand up for positive freedom, and take actions to prevent the senseless slaughter caused by the easy availability of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Donald J. Mullineaux is an emeritus professor in the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky.